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New Texts Out Now: Vijay Prashad, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation

[Cover of [Cover of "Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation"]

Vijay Prashad, editor, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation. London and New York: Verso, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?

Vijay Prashad (VP): Slowly, surely, the apparent consensus around US support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine seems to be breaking. There was a time when it was impossible to have a rational conversation about Israeli policy in the US, with large sections of people taking the view that criticism of Israel was off-limits. My friend Alexander Cockburn used to say that censure of Israeli policy was the third rail of US politics. Only on the very margins of US life was such a political discussion allowed—in fringe magazines and later in websites with very modest traffic. The general tenor of coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue was framed by an increasingly right-wing orthodoxy within Israel and within the Israel Lobby in the United States. This coverage showed Israel to be a valiant and civilized island surrounded by hostile terrorist states—with Israeli violence justified at each turn as self-defense. That the UN resolutions in the General Assembly annulled such a narrative made no impact.

Over the course of the past decade, several factors changed the US response to Israel. First, Israel’s spectacular and asymmetrical wars against the Palestinians could not be covered over. Israel’s pummeling of Palestinian society for the past two decades has been indefensible: illegal settlements combined with the punctuated violence against Gaza, the garroting of Palestinian everyday life, and the siege against Palestinian politics. These wars, and internal domestic matters, turned Israel sharply to the right—a scenario captured very well by Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2014). The arrogance (and electoral verve) of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu illustrated the evisceration of Israeli liberalism.

Second, in the US, reaction to the occupation and the wars, as well as to this rightward drift, has been sharp. It helped that journalists associated with The Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss pushed hard against the older orthodoxies. Although founded in 1996, Jewish Voice for Peace came into its own in the 2000s, just as Arab American groups that emerged as a reaction to the post-9/11 Islamaphobia began to be more assertive for Palestinian liberation. A weakened anti-war movement and social justice movement, alongside the committed Palestine liberation cohort, nonetheless kept the flag of solidarity with Palestine alive. The connection made by young activists between the police violence in Ferguson and the Israeli violence in Palestine is a testament to the consistent activism on Palestine on the margins. During Israel’s 2014 battery of Gaza, these currents would not allow Israeli hasbara to define the news. Other voices broke through the cracks of the consensus.

The 2014 attack by Israel, and the brazenness with which it seemed to be getting away without accountability, disturbed my circle of friends. A UN Commission of Inquiry would get nowhere; meanwhile, aid groups continue to warn that it is going to take more than a generation to make up for the destruction that took place last summer. I wanted to bring together writers that I admire to bear witness to the carnage and destruction. My friend Githa Hariharan had done such a book for LeftWord, From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (New Delhi: LeftWord, 2014). Githa’s book collected Indian writers to testify about the drift in Indian state policy toward Israel and against solidarity with Palestine. Her book gave me the idea to do this one. I am thankful to such fine writers, with such busy schedules, who turned over essays and poems of such beauty with such speed.

J: What makes Letters to Palestine different from other collections of essays about Palestine?

VP: Letters to Palestine does not explain the conflict, nor make the case for Palestinian liberation. There are too many books that try to prove the existence of Palestine, or else that demonstrate US complicity with Israel. Rashid Khalidi’s two volumes from Beacon (The Iron Cage and Brokers of Deceit) make the case as clearly as possible. We had a different remit. We take for granted that Palestine is a place, that Palestinians are a people, and that Israeli and US state policy have denied Palestinian aspirations since 1948. What we do instead is to create a short-circuit between the heart and the head, between our emotions and our rationality, to say that we stand with Palestine and we are not prepared to hold a discussion about Palestine on terms that are set by its occupiers. This is an explicitly political volume, one that is unwilling to be drawn into the kinds of circular debates that are often premised on the denial of Palestinian liberation.

The book collects essays and poems of equal political velocity, written by writers that I greatly admire for artistic and political reasons. There is Junot Díaz’s forthright statement that “Americans are deranged about Palestine,” and there is Huwaida Arraf’s fascinating story of the creation of the International Solidarity Movement; there is Sinan Antoon’s gorgeous poem that directly speaks to the Gaza war, and there is a little gem from Naomi Shibab Nye; there is Teju Cole’s evisceration of occupation’s laws, and there is Randa Jarrar’s heartfelt story of being denied entry into her homeland.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

VP: I would like this book to be carried in backpacks, placed on bedside tables, carried to festivals, read aloud at gatherings. This is a book to be used, a book to start conversations with. These are letters to Palestine—although the book could very well have been titled Letters about Palestine for a world that needs to reawaken its active solidarity through Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) actions. I would like to see this book define the way we talk about Palestine—not through the fake legalese of the Oslo process, but as a land whose people have unfulfilled national aspirations, and as an idea for a people who remain as permanent refugees. Robin Kelley’s essay is titled, “Yes, I Said National Liberation.” We would like that kind of language to return to our framework—the language of liberation and national self-determination (which is right there in Article 1 of the UN Charter).

My colleague from LeftWord Books, Sudhanva Deshpande, was recently in Palestine to work with the Freedom Theatre. While at a bookstore in Jerusalem, he saw Githa’s From India to Palestine prominently displayed. Perhaps those letters from India, which Raja Shehadeh hoped would “bring about close understanding between the Indian and Palestinian peoples,” will be a model for these letters from the United States. Perhaps someday Letters to Palestine will find its way to bookstores in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Beirut, Amman, Detroit, Berlin, London, New Delhi, Beijing….Sahar Mandour, who edits the Palestine supplement of As-Safir, will be running the “letters” in Arabic. There is already a Korean edition to come. Others will surely follow.

There is a poem by Samih al-Qasim that I had in mind as I edited this book:

On the day you kill me
You’ll find in my pocket
Travel tickets
To peace,
To the fields and the rain,
To people’s conscience.
Don’t waste the tickets.
(translated by Abdullah al-Udhari).

These “letters,” I hope, are like those tickets. Don’t waste them.

J: We also asked several of the contributors to comment on why they wrote chapters for this book; their responses are below.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

The struggle for justice and liberation in Palestine is intimately connected to global struggles of justice and liberation. My essay turns the spotlight on these movements, particularly those led by students in the United States. The more that Israel reveals its true nature—settler-colonialism and apartheid—the more that global communities facing similar oppression by similar systems reach out in solidarity.

In the US, Black, Latino, Arab, Muslim, Indigenous, LGBTQ, disabled communities, and so many others fighting for justice, equality, and liberation are creating pathways of true solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. These movements, these students, give me hope for justice in Palestine, for justice in our world, where before there was deep cynicism. 

Remi Kanazi

With each shell fired, home bulldozed, and water aquifer appropriated, we are forced to reflect, react, and navigate new space. Israel bombs; we write. Israel expands settlements; we boycott. Israel abducts and tortures; we build coalitions. Coming together with writers speaking out on Israel’s most recent campaign of mass violence in Gaza was an easy decision to make. In times like these, Naomi Shihab Nye’s carefully crafted stanzas, Junot Diaz’s searing words, Jasiri X’s rhythmic verses, and the expansive mix of authors and artists penning their letters to Palestine are all the more necessary.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Among the many harrowing experiences to which Palestinians in Gaza were subjected last summer, the renewed sense of abandonment by the world only deepens the trauma. In addition to unimaginable violence, there was a deliberate campaign of denial, isolation, and blame directed at Palestinians. The Israeli government spared no effort or resource in trying to tell the world that Palestinians in Gaza were responsible for the atrocities being committed against them. And I could not tolerate that. I wrote to unmask that lie. I wrote to demand that we remain human, that we name what was happening to Palestinians on our watch. My belief is that when we insist, in this way, we make it less and less possible for the world to stand by in silence.

Alex Lubin 

What can an American scholar contribute to justice in Palestine? One contribution, it seems to me, is to challenge the representation of Palestine in the US public sphere. My contribution to Letters to Palestine is therefore about what I call the US boycott of Palestine. My letter addresses US support for Israel—in the United Nations as well as in the flow of military hardware. The combined diplomatic cover and economic and military support the US provides Israel constitutes a de facto boycott of Palestine and Palestinians. My invocation of the “US boycott of Palestine” allows me to undercut arguments that boycotts are somehow beyond the pale of polite political discourse. Focusing on the actual withholding of aid, care, and resources to Palestinians reveals that sanctions, boycotts, and disproportionality are the norm of international relations. Indeed, the US has effectively boycotted Palestine for a long time.

My letter to Palestine is a call for a different US response to Israeli aggression; it acknowledges that many of us have heard the call from Palestinians to engage the BDS movement as a grassroots movement in support of justice.

Excerpt from Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation

From “Foreword: Americans Are So Deranged About Palestine,” by Junot Díaz

I grew up in the '80s in Central New Jersey, and every single kind of colonial settler calamity was present in my community. I was friends with an Irish kid, the only white kid in our community, and a hard-core Irish Catholic republican. His family used to pass the hat around in church to raise money for the IRA. My other friend was an Egyptian kid whose family extended into Palestine, and throughout the '80s, while everybody else was watching John Hughes movies, this kid had me on point on Palestine. And then of course this was at the height of the apartheid movement. So all of my African American friends, well, two of them, not all of them, had parents who were part of the leftwing, pro-ANC, anti-apartheid movement. I'm in this poor community and this is all just getting beamed into my head.

So by the time I was in college, I could give you chapter and verse on anti-Zionist projects. And look, for many people it's a really tough issue. It's like we've kind of gotten deranged, so that there are certain areas we can't discuss. And of course the situation in Palestine is an utter taboo in this country. Our ideas of terrorism, our ideas of Arabs, are over saturated with the most negative, weirdly perverse racist ideologies. I can't even turn on the news for five seconds without hearing the most racist shit about Arabs or Muslims. And so in that kind of atmosphere, it's just a shouting match. If you say, I think the occupation of Palestine is fucked up on forty different levels, people are like, you're the devil, we're going to get your tenure taken away, we're going to destroy you. You can say almost anything else. You could be like, "I eat humans," and they'll be like bien, bien.

On the basic, basic level: If you are occupying other people's shit, guess what—you are fucked up. That's that. And that's a tough thing for people to stomach. Because we live in a country that's currently occupying people's fucking land. Perhaps Americans are so deranged about Palestine because Americans are thinking, if we give up here, these fucking Indians are going to want their shit back. Well, maybe they should get their shit back. Since ninety percent of us don't own anything, I don't know how much it would hurt us.

[Excerpted from Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation, edited by Vijay Prashad, by permission of the editor. © 2015 by Vijay Prashad and the contributors. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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